A Better Diet

Around 2011 I heard Dan Benjamin talking about the “paleo” diet on one of his podcasts, he even helpfully put up a paleo primer on his Hivelogic site.

At the time I was following the prevailing Western advice of a fairly low fat, fairly high carb, healthy whole grain diet. You know the one – cereals with healthy heart messages, whole grain bread, “dietary fat clogs up your arteries and leads to heart disease” etc. but it had never worked well for me.

I’ve been slightly overweight most of my adult life and to lose weight on this type of diet I literally have to starve myself. Low fat, low calorie diets make me hungry all the time, so I can never stick to them for long. The paleo diet is quite a different approach.

The basic paleo idea is that you should eat food which is closer to the food we’ve “evolved” to eat, hence all the other names for the diet – primal, ancestral health, “caveman” – a pre-agriculture, pre-industrial, hunter-gather style diet. This usually translates into eating good quality meat (grass fed if you can get it), fish, eggs, fruit and veg, nuts, and no processed foods or processed meat, no grains, no legumes, and no dairy (although advice on these last two often differs) and usually there’s more esoteric things like nut flours and coconut oil which are often used to replace the jobs that the grains were doing in baking and cooking. It’s generally a higher fat, lower carb diet than the traditional Western diet but critically it removes gluten, and refined and processed carbohydrates including wheat and sugar from the diet.

I read some more. Gary Taubes book “Why We Get Fat: And What to Do About It” really helped me to understand the history behind the current Western diet advice and why it has led to the First World health crisis we see at the moment with obesity, heart disease, and early onset diabetes. I would still recommend this book as a great starting point for getting into the literature.

So I started to change my diet with some really good success. Cutting out processed food – biscuits, cakes, bread, sugar, and eating more fruit and veg and good quality meat and fish is always going to be a winner both for weight loss and for energy levels. And a lower carb diet seems to suit me.

But over the years I’ve found it hard to do this for any length of time. My family are not quite as willing to exchange their bread, cereals, and sugary treats for something more “healthy”. So far I have not successfully converted them over and I tend to fall back into bad habits every so often within this non-paleo environment! I still yo-yo in weight. Overall, I’m a lot healthier now than I was in 2011, but I’m still overweight.

Paleo does have a bit of an image problem. Most of the first wave of “popular” paleo came out of the west coast of America. There was a lot of talk about cavemen, catching woolly mammoths and eating copious amounts of red meat, it all seemed a bit naff to be frank. There was also a lot of navel-gazing and in-fighting about the details of the paleo diet – fat/protein/carb ratios, omega 3/6 ratios, and even a lot of supplementation – it’s a Califonian thing I suppose, but it definitely muddied the waters.

The paleo bandwagon has now been jumped on by the food maufacturers in The States, leading to paleo labelling on many very questionable products. The name has taken a bit of a bashing and is perhaps not as useful as it once was.

Meanwhile, back in 2011, Dan Benjamin had started a paleo podcast on his network with Angelo Coppola – “Latest in Paleo”. Angelo comes across as a really genuine guy and over the years it’s this podcast that has kept my interest in the changing face of paleo and good diet and health. Latest in Paleo has tracked this whole story and Angelo himself has slowly refined his diet and moved to what he calls the “plant paleo diet” that cuts down on the meat, and increases the veggies.

Also, I think the idea that there isn’t a single best solution for everyone is very important to grasp, there are different types of people with different genetics, different metabolisms, different guts, different lifestyles, which means that quite different diets can suit (or not suit) different people – you’ve got to find out what works for you personally. Some people do well on a higher carb lower fat diet while others do well on a higher fat lower carb diet. The most important thing is to eat as high quality food as you can find or afford and cut out the processed rubbish.

So this year I’m re-doubling my efforts with exercise and with diet. I’m going to be far more strict with the wheat, sugar, and processed food.

At the same time I’ll be researching paleo cookbooks (there are quite a few available from my local library) to try and come up with a wider range of practical recipes that are cheap and easy to cook, and that might even tempt my family enough for us to eradicte the sugary and processed “food” from our house for good.

If you’re interested in improving your diet I’d still recommend Gary Taubes’ book as a good starting place to understand the overall concepts of the history of diet, and if you subscribe and listen to all the back episodes of “Latest in Paleo” (there’s quite a few) then you’ll definitely know where to start.